It’s time to become a pop star, or at least work with some! Like any other concert you might conduct, a pops show requires independent score study, knowing the style, and being ready to adapt at a moment’s notice in concert. There are, however, some elements to keep in mind that distinguish the experience of working with guest artists in the pops genre from traditional classical settings. The orchestral pops world is ever evolving. More traditional pops concerts, such as those featuring purely orchestral repertoire, shows of Broadway highlights, etc., are fairly straightforward in that the role and responsibilities of the conductor are much like they would be in any classical performance. The one exception here is the increased expectation for the conductor to address the audience during these types of concerts. Shows with a guest artist that brings in their own group or band, however, can be a wholly different experience. Let’s go over a few of the differences and expectations you might need to have to be best equipped for these types of concerts.
Know the genre and the artist
Much like conducting a piece from the standard classical repertoire, it is important to have an understanding of the style and genre of the guest artist with whom you are working. You wouldn’t want to conduct a Mahler symphony without knowing about Mahler and the music that came before him. Similarly, you should develop an awareness of style and feel for any genre of pop concert you are asked to conduct, whether that be Blues, Hip Hop, Rock, Soul, Disco…you get the point. It would be like trying to teach an orchestra to play in a waltz in a Viennese style having never heard it yourself; if you don’t have an understanding of the genre/style, your ability to communicate your musical thoughts to the orchestra—and be stylistically aligned with the guest artist—will be greatly hindered.
Who’s running the show?
You may assume “I’m the conductor, that means I am running the show”. In the Pops world, the answer is a little more complicated than that. Different guests artists will have different technical setups in terms of how they run and perform their shows. They may also have different comfort levels of working with an orchestra as some guest artists may be performing with a symphony for the first time. Imagine how intimidating it may be when they are used to playing with their 5-piece band and suddenly they’re standing in front of an 80-piece orchestra. A conductor’s job in this situation is to help make the process go as smoothly as possible regardless of the situation.
The first thing you should always do is try to schedule a meeting with someone from the guest artist’s group prior to the start of the first rehearsal. This will typically be the bandleader, music director, drummer, etc. from the group who best knows the run of things from the guest artist’s perspective. A few things you should always determine during this initial meeting are:
Who starts and ends each piece?
Are there any changes to the songs that might not be reflected in the score?
What is the set list order?
Is the guest artist performing any songs without the orchestra?
Are you, the conductor, expected to speak at all during the show?
Just because you’re the conductor doesn’t necessarily mean you will be leading the start of each song…or any for that matter. Often time bands with little experience working with an orchestra will find it difficult to follow or understand a conductor’s beat pattern. While you can of course help mitigate this by having as clear and precise a technique as possible, they may feel far more confident having their drummer or music director count the start of each piece. It is always best to allow the guest artist perform in the way that makes them the most musically comfortable. Similarly, at the end of a song, a band may be used to having the singer, drummer, guitarist or other person give the cutoff. In this case, your role is to transmit that information to the orchestra so that everything flows smoothly and stays in sync. One of the best compliments you can receive from a guest artist is that you made the experience for them feel easy and comfortable.
On occasion, a show may be “on click”. This is when the band uses a click track to stay together and set up the start of each song. If the orchestra needs to start right at the beginning of a song, and no band member is showing or giving a verbal count off other than the click they are listening to in their in-ear-monitors, you may need to be on click with the band as well. Similarly, if the band is using a click track on songs with sudden shifts in tempo, it may be advisable to have the ability to hear their click track as well, whether or not you decide to listen to it the entire time or simply during important moments.
Often times pop songs will contain an open vamp for solos or optional/alternative endings. During your meeting with the guest artist, be sure to ask about all of these musical moments so that you understand what your cue is to advance the orchestra to the correct place in the music. Be prepared to have a non-verbal cue system in order to communicate these things with the orchestra (i.e. the semi-universal sign of a fist in the air which indicates to the musicians: last time through of a vamp section).
Speaking their language
Let’s start by pointing out one that may be more obvious. A “chart” is just another word for a song or piece. You may already know that but the point is the way in which you communicate with the guest artist may also need to be different from how you typically communicate with the orchestra. For example, most groups will not be using sheet music when they perform with an orchestra. Therefore, in rehearsal, asking the orchestra and guest artist to start at measure 55 in the music will be essentially meaningless to the guest artist. When studying the scores, identify the form of each piece so that during rehearsal you can say “we are starting at measure 55, which is the beginning of verse number 2.”
The condition of materials
Pops charts can come in every variety of physical condition and can be arranged by varying levels of orchestrators, arrangers, and copyists. Sometimes you get lucky and will receive scores that look like they came straight from Bärenreiter. Other times scores may come with heavy amounts of markings from previous performers, have non-traditional layouts/formats, or simply look like chicken scratch. Keep in mind that your musicians parts will likely look similar. That being said, any questions you may have about what is in the score is likely a question your musicians will have as well. If you clarify these in advance with the guest artist you can avoid wasted time in rehearsal later.
Markings and indications made by conductors during previous performances can be incredibly valuable as you begin your study process. Make sure you to take note of any indications before simply going through a score with an eraser, as these indications will more than likely still be true during your performance. Post-it-notes indicating cuts, tacet sections or the number of times through a vamp are likely to stay the same from one performance to the next. Develop your own system of marking these indications in your score and apply them before discarding all the previous markings of other conductors. Colored post-its, tabs, and erasable colored pencils are just some of the options at your disposal for making the roadmap easy to understand and execute in concert. On occasion you may find contradictory markings in a score (i.e. during one performance the solo section was repeated twice and during the next performance it was repeated three times). Make special note of these discrepancies so that you can clarify them with the guest artist prior to rehearsal.
Be prepared for anything
As with working with any guest artists, be prepared for anything! Guest artists may have a memory lapse and skip a verse, or the vocalist may not enter at the beginning of a song. While the band may be used to this and naturally vamp, the better prepared you are and more calm and collected you stay the easier it will be sort things out on the fly. Finally, and most importantly, your audience is there to have fun…so you should too!